A Time for Soapboxing
America is grappling with an epidemic of moralizing.
We’re now in the home stretch of the 2016 general election, and for the next three months, I suspect, we can count on saturation-level moralizing about what the American people must do. It seems only fair that those of us covering the presidential election should have a chance to chime in too, so here’s my take on the subject: Everyone has the right to determine their own values and commitments, and to advocate for their beliefs in public; I often find such perspectives interesting. But soapboxing is a different beast. I would define it as making assertions about moral priorities, then using those claims as a sort of cudgel in support of your preferred political outcomes. Though the tactic is common enough, I’ve never found it convincing, and this year’s presidential election helps explain why I think everyone should knock it off.
The reason we’re seeing so much melodramatic rhetoric right now is obvious. As many Republican leaders have come to appreciate since Donald Trump became their nominee, it’s a bit tricky to make a case for your candidate if your party, hilariously, decided to nominate Trump. Making matters worse for the GOP is that Trump represents a bit of a stumbling block for officials who might have been hoping to advocate for their principles, many of which the nominee has never heard of, disagrees with, or is inclined to deride. And so Republicans have unusually powerful incentives to focus on making the case against Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. The most plausible argument in favor of their candidate is that he is, literally, not the other guy.
Clinton is, of course, a flawed candidate whose long record in public life gives her critics plenty of material—including, last week, another batch of findings from the FBI investigation. But, again, the other option is Trump. Even a number of Republicans have reluctantly concluded that Clinton represents a more manageable risk to the nation. We saw that once again Wednesday, when the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News gritted its teeth and endorsed the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 76 years.
Many, however, have refused to do so, opting instead for strident assertions about how, as a matter of moral urgency, Republicans must unite behind Trump or else. Some are going a step further, and angrily denying that there can be any reasonable disagreement on the subject. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Ted Cruz elicited such a furious backlash at the Republican National Convention, in July, with his suggestion to “vote your conscience”; it sounds anodyne, but the implication is that voters have more than one morally defensible option.
Somewhat ominously, Trump’s inadequacies are apparently too glaringly obvious for even his supporters to ignore, meaning that they are increasingly talking about the woman likely to be our next president in ludicrously melodramatic terms. Yesterday, for example, Rush Limbaugh devoted his show to rhapsodizing over an article that appealed to him, as he gushed, because “it validates so many of the instincts that I have had over the years.” One of them, presumably, is that its author—whose fear of being persecuted for his beliefs compelled him to use a pseudonym—analogized Trump supporters to the actual heroes of United Flight 93. But frankly, I stopped reading after coming across this sentence in the second paragraph: “a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”
This is not a very strong argument for Trump, even if you accept such a questionable premise about Clinton. Nor is it one that Trump supporters would even think to offer if they could make a halfway plausible argument in favor of their candidate. But like most of the assertions being offered on behalf of Trump lately, it offers us a dramatic example of the more general shortcomings of the tactic at hand. Soapboxing is a cheap substitute for principled arguments. Insofar as it involves glibly characterizing other people’s motives, it has a corrosive effect on mutual goodwill. Plus, moral cudgels are a suboptimal way to win a political debate if you have better arguments at your disposal. This is a free country. For better or worse, the people decide. Anyone who feels strongly about an issue or a candidate should be busy persuading their fellow citizens to consider their perspective, not issuing proclamations about their own enlightenment or otherwise preaching to the choir. And when it comes to elections, especially, stridency should strike voters as suspicious. If a candidate deserves their support, there would be no reason for the cudgels to come out in the first place.